Thomas R. Temin
Five years have passed since Congress enacted welfare reform, giving states the power they'd long sought over this huge expenditure of dollars. Five years, and still many state systems aren't up to the task of administering federally funded social programs.
Making rules to govern social programs is one thing. Translating law and policy into computer code is quite another. It is hard, nitty-gritty and not particularly gratifying work. Most programmers dislike code maintenance, especially on the aging mainframes that comprise most states' social services systems.
Who wants to do Cobol updating when more glamorous and visible opportunities exist for creating online electronic-commerce systems or interactive Web sites?
But maintenance is one of the most important things state information technology shops do. What's amazing is how long this situation has gone on.
When new tax law is enacted, how long do you think your legislature or governor'to say nothing of the taxpayers'would tolerate systems that calculated things incorrectly, or didn't recognize new deductions or tax tables?
IT departments share some, but only some, of the blame for the welfare situation, as GCN/State & Local's Donna Young reports in this issue's cover story. Welfare officials and their overseers in the executive and legislative branches have, in many instances, done a half-hearted job of disseminating detailed information about new eligibility rules. In other situations, caseworkers know those rules, but information systems that are not up-to-date force them to perform cumbersome workarounds to ensure that the rules are followed.
That's a prescription for error, fraud and abuse.
Has this nationwide laxity continued because recipients of welfare and other benefits are tacitly considered second-class citizens without a politically powerful voice? One hopes not. But the fact is that tens of thousands of people have been erroneously denied some benefit because their eligibility for another expired.
The failure to fully update systems to carry out in code what is required by law simply must be fixed in every state.
Thomas R. TeminEditorial director